Twenty years ago: Student demonstrators in Gwangju spread a US flag reading 'Against America,' along with South Korean flags on the street as they parade through the city 17 May 2000, for the 20th anniversary of the Gwangju massacre. Photo: AFP / Choo Young-kong

As South Koreans remember the Gwangju Uprising of May 18-27, 1980, in which more than 200 died, many continue the long-standing habit of looking for outsiders to blame.

General Chun Doo-hwan, General Roh Tae-woo and their fellow South Korean army coup-plotters are the obvious culprits, since they were the ones who sent hardened special forces troops to thwart a student demonstration against their violent takeover of the government.

Nevertheless, many on the right are convinced that North Korean infiltrators committed some of the worst carnage and provoked locals into excess during those 10 days that shook South Korea. The valiant military, they believe, has had its honor unfairly tarnished.

On a lively Facebook thread Tuesday night a Seoul resident surnamed Park summarized, using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea:

“The narrative (unsubstantiated rumor) floating in the streets (even today) is that DPRK agents (spies, or sleeper-cells that woke up, if you will) instigated (threw oil on fire) to amplify social unrest while being physically present in South Korea…. Were there North Koreans agents/operatives (hidden amongst the demonstrators in plain street clothes) in Gwangju (or in Seoul for that matter)?”

The rightist theory has yet to acquire a very persuasive evidentiary foundation, to put it mildly.

Meanwhile many on the left (egged on by activist left-wing writers from the United States) have blamed the US government. Naturally that’s of keen interest to just about any American living and working in the country. Tom Coyner, a writer and photographer who arrived in Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer decades ago, recalls a joke told by a British journalist in the 1990s:

“When a Frenchman catches his wife in bed with her lover, he kills the lover. When an Italian catches his wife in bed with her lover, he kills the wife. But when a Korean catches his wife in bed with her lover, he organizes a demonstration in front of the US Embassy.”  

Adds Coyner: “This mentality is not so present with younger Koreans, but old thought patterns die slowly.”

And those thought patterns are alive and well in the Korean diaspora. “Instead of fighting him as a murderous dictator, like we do with unfriendly dictators, the US quickly gave official recognition” to coup leader Chun, a Korean-American resident of California (also surnamed Park, the third most common Korean name) argued on the Facebook thread.

Looking for ammunition, and initially finding little at home because a Chun martial law decree had locked down the Korean news media, ideologues have sought support in the reporting and recollections of the handful of foreign correspondents who covered parts of the rebellion.

Taken in vain

Both sides have taken my name in vain. For example, regarding Yoon (now usually spelled Yun) Sang-won, who was the actual leader of the latter part of the rebellion, I’ve just found this reference in a 2017 article in the Seoul newspaper Hankyoreh by a Gwangju-based left-wing American activist-historian:

“On May 26, 1980, Yoon was the press spokesperson in besieged Gwangju representing the insurgents as the military was poised to overwhelm the liberated city. He used the occasion to send a message to US ambassador William Gleysteen (via Bradley Martin, a US journalist then writing for the Baltimore Sun). Yoon asked the ambassador to intervene with Chun Doo-hwan and help negotiate a peaceful settlement to the uprising.

“Martin has verified that he passed along Yoon’s request to the ambassador but that Gleysteen refused to do anything about it.”

Wrong. I haven’t verified it. It never happened. The request to convey the message was addressed to all the reporters at the press conference. I left the city, whose communication lines had been cut, arriving late at night in the capital, Seoul, where my priorities were to write and dispatch an article. (It did mention the plea to the US.)

When I awoke in my Seoul hotel on May 27, I heard that Chun’s troops had retaken Gwangju at dawn, killing, by the Associated Press correspondent’s count, 16 more young people including the spokesman.

Years later I spoke with a group of his surviving friends in Gwangju and was told that the leader/spokesman had not expected help from the United States. He had expected what he and the other holdouts got: martyrdom. He believed that surrender was out of the question. “Pockets of resistance” like his would inspire Koreans to democratize the country in the future.

His friends told me his press conference message had been merely a gesture intended to create a modicum of hope and thus build morale among the die-hard insurrectionists he led who, he knew, would be no match for the military once it made its move.

But misquotation of foreign correspondents is far from the only evidence that’s been marshaled in favor of the left-wing view blaming the U.S.

Shorrock’s declassifications

American writer Tim Shorrock has performed a useful service in getting some 4,000 pages of US classified documents declassified and has done a good job debunking right-wing claims of North Korean responsibility.

At the same time he and others have used the cables and memos to promote the view that the US bears major responsibility, on account of failure to stand up resolutely against Chun’s power grab and deadly crackdown.

The thing about the declassified papers is that there’s not a real smoking gun – and, taken as a whole, they are ambiguous enough that you can draw from them to bolster either the blame-America argument or the argument that follows from my own experience on the ground: Gwangju was a South Korean military production to such an huge extent that looking beyond the obvious bad guys for someone to take major blame is not productive.

Seoul-based writer Matt VanVolkenburg focuses on Gwangju, among other topics, on his blog Gusts of Popular Feeling. The US government didn’t want Chun Doo-hwan to become president, he says, harking back to the period after Chun began his rolling coup in December 1979, when a civilian president had succeeded assassinated dictator and former general Park Chung-hee.

“In fact the main story after Park Chung-hee’s death was Gleysteen working behind the scenes to push President Choi [Kyu-hah] towards political liberalization and to keep the dissidents (and later students) and the military from provoking each other so as to leave the middle ground open for Choi, who unfortunately was not temperamentally the man for the job,” VanVolkenburg says.

Central to the ambassador’s efforts “was maintaining relations with all sides so as to try to influence them,” VanVolkenburg adds. “By May 17 he was warning the prime minister that to arrest politicians could have catastrophic consequences, and then when that crackdown began he called those arrests ‘political idiocy,’ threatened that US-ROK relations were not going to be ‘business as usual’ unless positive changes were seen in the next few days, and began canceling American economic visits.”

VanVolkenburg gives more weight than Shorrock does to those efforts and also to “Gleysteen’s repeated mentions of anti-Americanism being fostered by Chun to draw attention away from himself.”

He notes, correctly, that “blaming the US for the outbreak was a narrative first put forward by Chun and the military authorities during the earliest days of the uprising to draw attention and blame away from him.”

Wanted a strong man 

Although many in Seoul’s foreign business community welcomed a takeover by a strong man in the mold of the assassinated Park, it was clear to me – and has remained so throughout the intervening four decades – that the United States government did not encourage Chun’s putsch.

A narrative that’s embraced by some correspondents who covered South Korea during that turbulent period is that the ambassador and other surprised American officials (we knew them well and spoke with them often) were appalled when Chun carried out his coup. But Chun’s takeover proceeded so quickly and thoroughly that there was no realistic alternative to dealing with him while trying to make sure democracy would have its chance in due course.

In the months following Park’s Oct. 26, 1979, assassination, “I don’t think the US knew what Chun was doing,” says Mike Tharp, then of the Wall Street Journal.

Current Asia Times correspondent Andrew Salmon, a military historian, notes that Chun had quickly disposed of South Koreans who might have had the power to stop him. “There were firefights within the military when Chun took over. So the support was there: he had eliminated the opposition – in some cases literally.”

Former Washington Times correspondent Michael Breen, author of The Koreans and The New Koreans, notes: “We live in different times. Back then, everyone was afraid of two beasts. The first was North Korea. Its perceived commitment to taking over the South seemed to people, rightly or wrongly, contained only by the presence of US troops. Five years earlier, US troops had turned around and left South Vietnam to its fate. Maybe Korea was different but middle-aged South Koreans had experienced the war and knew the price of misjudging this.

‘The second beast was military dictatorship,” Breen says. “The protesting was making people nervous, so much so that – people might be ashamed to admit this now – there was a feeling in other parts of Korea that the hotheads among protesters in Gwangju brought this on themselves.”

Opcon

A hugely complicating factor in the relationship was US “operational control” over the South Korean military, intended to ensure a unified response in case of another war. Critics argue that the Americans could have vetoed one fateful development: the move of frontline South Korean troops from border positions facing North Korea to Gwangju. The reality was nowhere near that simple.

Seoul businessman Hank Morris remembers conversations with the late Steve Bradner, who for decades was the top US Defense Department intelligence analyst in Korea, and others involved with US Forces Korea who told him that “Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo pulled some South Korean forces out of frontline positions without telling the American commander that they were doing so, and most definitely without his permission.”

Additional US cables and memos have just been declassified. The headliner, as far as South Korea is concerned, details a meeting between Gleysteen and Chun on December 15, 1979, three days after the coup.

People of different ideological persuasions have read and will read those details differently, the critics on the left saying it showed Gleysteen giving way to the little-known new boss of the host country – while we who are not of that ideological persuasion see the ambassador showing as much toughness as he could get away with without endangering the common defense against another North Korean invasion.

To a large extent it is a question of values: Which should come first in a developing country still recovering from being all but conquered three decades earlier by a totalitarian state? Security or democracy? South Koreans had to wait seven more years to achieve the latter. After a few quiet years under Chun’s yoke followed by further demonstrations, they were permitted to vote freely in 1987 for a president to replace Chun.

Certainly the December 1979 meeting minutes don’t represent a smoking gun. This is basically old news. The US, in 1989, had summarized the information contained in the now declassified documents to prepare an exhaustive “official US statement” on Gwangju that was given to the South Koreans to explain US decisions and actions around the time of the uprising.

Will the split in opinion about Gwangju within South Korea go away any time soon? Coming from the United States, where it appears we’re still fighting the Civil War, I’m not holding my breath.

Bradley K. Martin covered the South Korean democratization movement, starting in 1977, for the Baltimore Sun and then Newsweek. He is the author of “Yun Sang-won: The Knowledge in Those Eyes,” a chapter in the book The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.